Tiberius Gracchus


The Forum


Tiberius Gracchus was born in 163 BC and because of his political views brutally met his death in 133. He was the son of Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus and Cornelia, the daughter of Scipio Africanus. Together with his younger brother Gaius, these two men who were known collectively as the Gracchi left an indelible mark on Roman history.


Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus, the father of the Gracchi was able to achieve many personal accomplishments in his lifetime. He held the office of censor in 169 BC and served twice as consul, first in 177 and then again in 163. Due to his achievements, two triumphs were celebrated in his honor. In addition to his prestigious titles, Tiberius Sempronius was also known throughout Rome for his stellar personal character. So great was this level of respect that upon the death of Scipio Africanus (the conqueror of Hannibal), his daughter Cornelia was given to Tiberius as his bride. The nuptials took place even though Tiberius, who was known to often oppose Scipio, was not considered to be a friend.

According to legend, one day Tiberius Sempronius came upon two snakes lying in his bed. He was instructed by the augurs to neither kill the pair nor let them live, but instead to consider each serpent separately. Knowing that by killing the female he would be bringing about the end of Cornelia's life, Tiberius who truly loved his wife chose to slay the male. Just as predicted, soon afterwards he lost his life (in about 150 BC) thus leaving behind Cornelia and their twelve children.

Cornelia, though romantically pursued by Ptolemy VI Philometor, who was the king of Egypt, chose to remain a widow. Unfortunately, she lost all of her children but three; her daughter Sempronia and her two sons, Tiberius and Gaius - The Gracchi.


The Brothers Gracchi

Tiberius and Gaius, had much in common in the ways of courage, generosity, idealism and self discipline, but as they grew into manhood the pair also developed some very strong differences. Tiberius was calm and gentle while Gaius was high strung and overly passionate. During public speeches Tiberius was known to stand in one place and speak in a well mannered tone, while Gaius was said to be the first Roman to march up and down the rostra violently pulling his toga from his shoulder to add a dramatic effect to his words. Gaius would stimulate his audience and was impassioned to the point of exaggeration. Tiberius was more conciliatory, carefully choosing his words and making sure to appeal to the men's sense of pity.

Similar differences were also present in the brother's characters. Tiberius was known to be mild and reasonable while Gaius was considered to be compulsive and harsh. Many times Gaius, against his better judgement allowed himself to be so carried away by anger that his speaking voice would rise to a high pitch and the foundation of his argument would eventually be lost in a barrage of abuse.


Tiberius Gracchus

Tiberius Gracchus was nine years older than his brother Gaius. Because this age difference would allow their political careers to be separated by a notable span of time, it would prove to be the prime factor in weakening their endeavors. Because they were not able to achieve their political prominence at the same time, their powers were exerted separately, causing them to miss out on the combined effect they so very much needed.


The Career of Tiberius Gracchus

When he came of age, Tiberius, because of his honorable reputation, was elected to the priesthood in the college of augurs. It was at this time that Appius Claudius, a former censor and consul who due to his rank was raised to the position of leader of the Senate, offered Tiberius his daughter Claudia's hand in marriage. To this Tiberius gladly accepted.

Soon after he served for a time in Africa under Scipio Africanus the Younger, who had previously married his sister Sempronia. Here Tiberius was able to develop his fine qualities of courage and discipline. He won the praise and affection of many of his comrades and was greatly missed when he returned home to Italy.


Tiberius, Mancinus and the Numantines

In 137 B.C. Tiberius was elected quaestor and was called to serve under Gaius Mancinus in his campaign against Numantia. Many misfortunes and military changes marked this campaign but it was the intelligence and bravery of Tiberius Gracchus that stood out the most.

After losing several major battles, Mancinus decided to abandon his camp and withdraw his army at nightfall. Before he could act the Numantines discovered his intentions and immediately took control by attacking his fleeing men and cutting his rear to pieces. Seeing no chance for safety, Mancinus sent a message to the enemy in hopes of establishing a truce, but the Numantines declared they would trust no Roman other than Tiberius Gracchus. Not only did the people of Numantia have a high regard for Tiberius but also for his father, for in times past Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus had made a peace with them whose terms he promised would always be kept by the Roman people. Mancinus complied and sent Tiberius to confer with the enemy's leaders. After much debating and compromising, the two groups came to an agreement that undoubtedly saved the lives of 20,000 Roman citizens.

Whatever property left behind at the Roman camp was confiscated as plunder by the Numantines. Among these spoils were personal ledgers kept by Tiberius Gracchus detailing any transactions made during his time as quaestor. Being very anxious to recover his journals, Tiberius left the army behind and returned to Numantia in the company of only two or three associates. The Numantine people were so eager to be of service to Tiberius, that they invited him and his companions to enter the city as friends. Not wanting to offend his hosts and also because he very much wanted to reclaim his missing diaries, Tiberius accepted the invitation and enjoyed a meal with his former enemies.

Tiberius returned home to find his interaction with the Numantines had caused a large wave of outrage among the Roman people. Some found these newly born tidings of friendship to be both disastrous and disgraceful to the name of Rome. These feelings were primarily because of an incident that took place in 321 BC. It seems that the Roman army had been trapped by the Samnites in a mountain pass known as the Caudine Forks. Finding themselves to be completely surrounded, the two consuls in charge, rather than facing certain death decided to succumb to the indignity of walking under the yoke. This was an ancient practice where the surrendering army was required to relinquish all of their spears and then to the pleasure of the enemy were forced to march underneath them. This was considered to be a grave humiliation on the battlefield.

Because this decision was made without the approval of the Roman people, the Senate rejected the terms of surrender. The consuls were then stripped and turned over to the enemy as punishment for buying their safety on dishonorable terms. This penalty was extended to cover everyone and anyone willing to take part in an illegal surrender.

Those who most fiercely opposed the actions of Tiberius referred back to this ancient law in hopes that it would be applied to him. To their dismay, the people chose to stand by Tiberius and voted that only Mancinus be held accountable. The unfortunate consul was then stripped and turned over to the Numantines in chains, but it was decided for the sake of Tiberius that the other men would be spared. Scipio Africanus the Younger, who was at this time a very powerful and influential man in Rome also played a part in saving the men, but Tiberius and his followers blamed him for not also saving Mancinus from his cruel fate. Scipio was also admonished for not insisting that the peace agreement made between Tiberius and the Numantines be upheld.


Tiberius Gracchus and his Agrarian Reform

It was customary for the Romans to divide any land annexed from neighboring domains during war time. Part would be placed up for sale by auction and the rest was considered common land, which was to be allotted among the city's most needy citizens. In return, the recipricants would be required to pay a small rent to the public treasury.

Because the rich began to outbid and force the poor away by raising the cost of their rent, a law known as the Lex Licinia was passed in 366 BC. This law forbade any one person from owning more that what would be known today as approximately 310 acres. For a while this law helped control the greed of the affluent but it was not long before they were able, through fraud and deception to reclaim possession of the land. The underprivileged free citizens were pushed out of their homes only to be replaced by gangs of foreign slaves who were employed by the wealthy landowners. Not only did this cause a rapid decline in the class of free small-holders throughout Italy but it also caused severe problems for the army. For at that time only a landowner could volunteer for military service and the peasant farmers being forced off their land could only mean a drastic decline in the number of recruits.

Heedless to the wrath of the aristocracy, Tiberius Gracchus, after becoming tribune drafted a law that would once again restore the public land back to its rightful owners. This law was exceedingly lenient to the wrongdoers, for as it read the wealthy landowners were not to be fined or punished in any way, but were only required to return the land (which they were compensated for) back to the needy citizens. Regardless, this new land law infuriated the avaricious wealthy class, causing them to harbor much personal resentment towards Tiberius. They did their best to turn the people against him and his reform by alleging that the true motive behind his redistribution of land was to undermine the state and cause a revolution in Rome. Once again the words of the aristocrats fell upon deaf ears, for whenever Tiberius pleaded his case for the poor, crowds would gather and his speeches would effect all who listened.

Because of the eloquence of Tiberius' oratory skills, none of his adversaries could effectively challenge him. Knowing they were not capable of debating him on their own, they enlisted the aid of Marcus Octavius, a tribune of the people. Octavius first declined their request for help, but because of the pressure set upon him by these influential men, he eventually agreed to oppose Tiberius and prevent his law from being passed. At that time the tribunes had the power to veto a bill being brought before the Senate. The opposition of but one tribune was all that was needed to render a colleagues powerless.

Angered by this conspiracy, Tiberius withdrew his original law and in its place introduced one which proved to be more gratifying to the people and more severe to the illegal landowners. This new version demanded they relinquish the land back to its rightful owners but this time they were not to receive a single penny of compensation.

Ironically, by vetoing the original bill, Marcus Octavius, being the owner of large pieces of public land put himself in the position of having his own property confiscated without the benefit of compensation. Tiberius offered to pay Octavius out of his own pocket if he would retract his veto but Octavius refused his offer.

Tiberius at once issued an edict barring all other magistrates from conducting public business until the people cast their vote either for or against his land law. He also closed the treasury (the temple of Saturn) as to prevent the quaestors from either removing or paying in money. In desperation the land owning class organized another conspiracy against Tiberius, this time hiring a group of assassins to permanently remove him from the picture.


Tiberius Gracchus and the Election

In Tiberius' day, the Roman citizens were divided up into 35 tribes. The collective vote of each tribe counted as one, this being decided by the majority vote within each tribe itself. Lots were placed into urns and these were drawn to decide the order in which the tribes would vote. When the day of the election finally came, the nobles seized the voting urns, causing chaos to erupt throughout the entire proceedings. Trying to avoid violence between the landowners and his supporters, Tiberius decided to refer the matter to the Senate. But this proved to be of no avail, for the rich were able to dominate the meeting thus leaving Tiberius no other choice than to take unconstitutional action.

He proposed a motion that Marcus Octavius be stripped of the title of tribune. He then asked the tribes to vote on the issue, and when it was apparent that 17 out of the 35 were in favor of the proposal he stopped the voting and begged Octavius to retract his veto. Octavius was visibly moved, but once again he fell under the pressure of the wealthy landowners and refused. The deciding vote was then cast and Marcus Octavius was promptly dragged from the rostra in an act of lynch justice.

Tiberius' agrarian law was finally passed. The land was then surveyed and divided up and distributed back to the poor. Though Tiberius was able to accomplish this without incident, the prolonged anger of the wealthy class was made very obvious to him. He was frequently insulted and very often treated disrespectfully while in the Senate. His primary antagonizer was Publius Nascia, one of the largest owners of public land in Rome. Nascia was extremely bitter and greatly resented having to give up his personal property to the needy.


The Final Days of Tiberius Gracchus

Early in 133 BC, king Attalus Philometer of Pergamum died and named the people of Rome as his heirs. Tiberius, hoping to increase his popularity introduced a law stating that upon the arrival of the king's money in Rome, it would at once be divided between the citizens who had received allotments of the public land. This was to ensure them of being capable of stocking and cultivating their farms. He also declared the Senate should have no right in deciding the destiny of the cities found lying within the boundaries of Attalus' kingdom. Instead, he would take it upon himself to offer a plan to the people regarding this situation.

This gravely offended the Senate, and while he was listening to their objections it soon became apparent to Tiberius that many of the people also found the removal of Octavius from the tribunal to be unacceptable. The title of tribune was held in very high regard and most saw this action as a serious violation of the tribunate's honor and dignity. Once again Tiberius used his articulate gift of speech to defend his actions and to persuade the people to support his cause.

In the meantime, Tiberius' friends and supporters were becoming very aware of many different threats and plots being organized against him by his opposers. In order to maintain his own safety it was crucial that Tiberius be re-elected to serve another term as tribune, for as I have already stated the tribunes of the people were considered sacrosanct and therefore immune from all prosecution. The problem was that this had never before been done in Rome. It was unthinkable for a magistrate serving a current office to immediately run again for a fresh term.

In order to strengthen his position among the people, Tiberius proposed to reduce the period of required military service, which at that time spanned from the age of 17 to the age of 46. He also proposed to make drastic changes to the court system by not only allowing the people to appeal verdicts decided by juries, but by also allowing them sit on the juries themselves. Prior to this the Roman juries were made up of Senators only and later Knights. All in all Tiberius' agenda was designed to diminish the power of the Senate and to embody the people with more authority and might, but one has to wonder if this was truly the driving force behind his program. It is possible that his motives were derived more from anger and party politics than from the want of justice and the common good for Rome.

As the voting progressed, those in favor of Tiberius saw that their opponents were securing a substantial lead. This was because 31 of the 35 tribes were rural leaving only 4 tribes in the urban area. As it was harvest time, many of Tiberius' country supporters were not able to attend, thus giving the optimates the majority of the votes.

After some buying of time by the Gracchus supporters, the Assembly was dismissed until the following day. Tiberius gave a tearful speech at the forum and many of his listeners who were fearful of his life chose to camp outside his house and guard him until dawn. In the morning, Tiberius was faced with quite a few menacing omens. First the birds used for the auspices refused to leave their cage. Only one ventured out but he would not eat a bite of food. He only gave a slight stretch of his wing and then once again returned to his coop. This reminded Tiberius of an earlier incident, where some snakes had hatched their eggs in a grand helmet he had won as a war prize. The two put together made him feel very uneasy. To add to his feelings of unrest, he stumbled across his threshold when leaving his house and struck his foot so hard that his toe was split causing blood to spill from his sandal. As he journeyed on to the Capitol he passed by two crows fighting on a rooftop. As the birds battled, a stone was dropped from one of them which landed on his foot. This confirmed that all of the day's omens were meant for him.

As Tiberius approached the Capitoline, he was met with good news. The tide had turned in his favor and as he climbed to the top of the hill he was welcomed by a hearty cheer. At that moment, Fulvius Flaccus, a senator approached and warned Tiberius that because the aristocracy could not persuade the consul to kill him, the group planned to carry out the deed themselves.

At once the advocates immediately surrounding Tiberius began to arm themselves with clubs. In order to convey the message of danger to those standing farther away in the crowd, Tiberius raised his hands to his head to signify that his life was being threatened. Mistaking this gesture as a request for a crown, some of his enemies rushed to the Senate and informed the nobles that Tiberius Gracchus was demanding to be made king. Outraged, the senators led by Publius Nascia headed for the Capitol with a group of baton wielding supporters in tow.

The angry mob besieged Tiberius' protectors, brutally beating them to death and leaving their bodies strewn across the blood soaked ground. Tiberius turned to run but lost his balance and stumbled over some of the dead that were lying at his feet. As he tried to stand, a fellow tribune by the name of Publius Satyreius stuck the lethal blow, thus ending the life of Tiberius Gracchus.


The Aftermath of his Death

When all was said and done, more than 300 men had lost their lives. The savage death of Tiberius Gracchus marked the first spilling of Roman blood over civil disturbances since the abolishment of the kings. It is generally presumed that since the number of Tiberius' supporters totaled less than 3,000, the tribune could have easily been persuaded to surrender without any need for violence or bloodshed. But because there was such a deep rooted hatred encompassing the hearts of the aristocracy, they could see no alternative end to the matter. Even the corpse of Tiberius Gracchus was treated with disrespect. All requests made by Gaius Gracchus to claim his brother's body for burial were refused. Instead, Tiberius was cast into the Tiber River along with the rest of the dead. Many of his supporters were banished without trials while the more unfortunate of the lot were executed.

In an effort to placate the people, the Senate permitted the continuation of the disbursement of public land. They also proposed that a new commissioner should be elected to take the place of Tiberius. A vote was taken and Publius Crassus, the father-in-law of Gaius Gracchus was chosen. This however, did not lessen the feelings of grief among the people. Tiberius was very greatly missed, and though quiet for the moment it was very obvious that the crowd was only waiting for the proper time to strike before seeking their revenge.

Publius Nascia was already being threatened with impeachment. Because the Senate so feared for his life, they decided to send him away to Asia, even though they had absolutely nothing for him to do there. The loathing for him was so strong throughout the city that even his position of Pontifex Maximus could not keep him in Rome. Like a contemptible outcast, he aimlessly wandered from place to place until he finally died at Pergamum.



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